When news of quarterback Tom Brady’s retirement broke in late January, no one knew then what is unmistakably clear now: The NFL was in the beginning stages of what would become a whiplash-inducing 2022 offseason of change. Even the conclusion of the Brady story had a surprise ending, with the seven-time Super Bowl winner reversing his decision six weeks later to return for a 23rd season, his third with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That was but a single development in one of the most compelling NFL offseasons in recent memory. The past several months have featured a flurry of player movement, with the game’s premier wide receiver and numerous top-tier QBs among those who landed on different teams. But there were innumerable events on other fronts as well.
Kickoff of the NFL’s 2022 regular season is still six weeks away, with the defending champion Los Angeles Rams hosting the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, Sept. 8 (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). But with training camps around the league opening this week, let’s get you caught up on everything you need to know with our annual offseason review.
Brady (almost) retires
When Brady announced his retirement during the playoffs, he began the message posted to his social channels thusly: “This is difficult for me to write, but here goes …” That was, perhaps, a harbinger of what was to come.
Brady proved unable to stay away from the game, reversing his retirement decision by announcing his return to the Buccaneers in March, citing “unfinished business.” He turns 45 years old on Aug. 3 and will be the NFL’s oldest player this season by nearly five full years.
Some players did actually go through with their retirements this offseason. Among them: quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Fitzpatrick, tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Frank Gore, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, safety Malcolm Jenkins and center Alex Mack.
Payton steps away from Saints
The last time the New Orleans Saints conducted a coaching search, President George W. Bush was in the middle of his second term. Sean Payton landed the job in 2006, stayed for 16 years and guided the Saints to a Super Bowl win in the 2009 season. But he stepped down in January, and while he said he doesn’t consider himself retired, he added that coaching is not of interest to him at this time.
Among active head coaches, only Sean McVay, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid have better winning percentages than Payton (.631). He will be succeeded by Dennis Allen, formerly the Saints’ defensive coordinator.
In a league in which hiring up-and-coming head coaches has been all the rage, the 2022 hiring cycle played out in surprising fashion. Five retread coaches were among the new hires this year, with Allen joining Lovie Smith (Houston Texans), Doug Pederson (Jacksonville Jaguars), Josh McDaniels (Las Vegas Raiders) and Todd Bowles (Buccaneers). Still, the yearslong trend of looking for savvy offensive coaches didn’t necessarily end: Kevin O’Connell (Minnesota Vikings), Brian Daboll (New York Giants), Nathaniel Hackett (Denver Broncos) and Mike McDaniel (Miami Dolphins) all landed jobs. Matt Eberflus, who served as the Colts’ defensive coordinator for the past four years, was the 10th hire of the offseason (Chicago Bears).
Flores sues the NFL
Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL, Dolphins, Broncos and Giants alleging racial discrimination. The accusations in the suit include allegations that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered incentives for Flores’ team to lose games for the purpose of improving draft position, and that the Giants and Broncos subjected him to “sham” interviews to comply with the Rooney Rule.
Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks and longtime league assistant Ray Horton later joined Flores’ suit, making their own claims against the Cardinals and Titans, respectively. In turn, NFL officials reassessed the Rooney Rule, including a new mandate requiring all teams to hire a minority offensive assistant for the 2022 season, a move thought to enhance opportunities for advancement in the future. There are six minority head coaches, including three of the 10 hires this offseason. McDaniel, Bowles and Smith joined Ron Rivera (Washington Commanders), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Robert Saleh (New York Jets).
Rodgers commits to Green Bay
After all the cryptic signs and mixed signals, Aaron Rodgers wound up staying home. The All-Pro Green Bay Packers quarterback and reigning MVP had given teams around the league some hope he could be acquired in a trade given his apparent discontent. But Rodgers ultimately re-signed with Green Bay, mending fences and agreeing to a three-year deal that could reap him $150 million over the next three seasons.
Rodgers had previously agreed to a reworked deal in 2021 that voided the 2023 season, meaning this would have been his final season under the previous contract.
WR market turned on its head
Rodgers returning to Green Bay wasn’t enough to keep the team’s All-Pro receiver in town. Davante Adams declined the Packers’ contract offers and instead agreed to a trade to the Raiders, who then handed him a five-year contract averaging $28.5 million per season.
The move reunited college teammates Adams and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who have maintained a close relationship during their careers. But it also completely upended the wide receiver market. That soon had implications elsewhere.
The Kansas City Chiefs believed they were on track to reach a deal on an extension with Tyreek Hill. And then they weren’t. Adams’ deal reset negotiations and priced Hill out of Kansas City’s reach. The team allowed him to seek a trade partner, and Hill’s camp found one in the Dolphins, who gave him a record-breaking contract averaging $30 million per season. A month later, the Philadelphia Eagles acquired A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans in a draft-day move and signed him to a four-year deal worth $100 million.
Four receivers (Hill, Adams, Brown and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs) signed individual contracts this offseason each worth more than $95 million, and the Rams’ Cooper Kupp agreed to a three-year extension of $80 million, pushing the value of his current deal to five years and $110 million — $75 million of which is guaranteed. The market reset led to another WR-heavy draft. It’s a trend worth watching in the coming years — at least five receivers were taken in Round 1 this April for a third straight year.
Defense dominates the draft
Even with those five Day 1 receivers, defensive players came flying off the board early in the 2022 draft. For the first time since 1991, the top five picks in the draft were all defensive players, with defensive end Travon Walker (Jaguars) leading edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit Lions), cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (Texans), cornerback Sauce Gardner (Jets) and edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux (Giants). Walker became just the fourth defensive player taken No. 1 overall since 2006.
Conversely, quarterbacks were an afterthought in this year’s draft. Just one — Kenny Pickett (Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 20) — was selected in the first round. No other QB was selected until Round 3, when Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis and Matt Corral came off the board.
One of the biggest storylines of the draft: Two New York teams significantly upgrading with two picks each in the top 10. The Giants loaded up by selecting Thibodeaux (fifth overall) and offensive tackle Evan Neal (seventh), while the Jets added Gardner (fourth), receiver Garrett Wilson (10th) and pass-rusher Jermaine Johnson II (26th).
End of an era in Seattle
The Broncos were among the teams with an interest in trading for Rodgers, but they instead executed a deal with the Seattle Seahawks for nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson on the very same day Rodgers agreed to stay in Green Bay. In the process, the Seahawks said goodbye to one of the greatest players in franchise history.
In a move reminiscent of the Broncos’ acquisition of Peyton Manning in 2012, Denver solidified its most important position after years of instability at quarterback. It instantly made the Broncos one of the favorites in the AFC. But can they even win their own division? A subplot here is the intrigue of the AFC West, which now features arguably the best QB collection of any division.
The in-division competition was further intensified by other moves, such as the Raiders acquiring Adams and signing pass-rusher Chandler Jones, and the Los Angeles Chargers trading for edge rusher Khalil Mack and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Watson’s trade, ongoing lawsuits
After sitting out all of the 2021 season with the Texans, Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson was traded to the Cleveland Browns while facing 24 civil lawsuits alleging inappropriate behavior and sexual assault during massage sessions. (A 25th lawsuit was dropped after the judge ruled the petition had to be amended to include the plaintiff’s name). Watson received a record-shattering $230 million in guaranteed money from Cleveland, a deal that beat out several other suitors.
Earlier this year, grand juries in two different jurisdictions in Texas declined to indict Watson on criminal charges stemming from allegations. Watson then settled 20 of the 24 civil lawsuits. The remaining four lawsuits could go to trial at a later date, likely next spring. Additionally, the NFL’s own investigation — led by NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, a retired federal judge — recently concluded, and a disciplinary decision (including a lengthy suspension) is expected soon.
Colts swap QBs … again
The courtship of Watson had a significant impact on the quarterback landscape. The Atlanta Falcons’ overtures, whether intentionally or not, helped clarify the muddled future of franchise quarterback Matt Ryan and convinced him to ask for a trade. The Falcons accommodated him by dealing him to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round draft choice.
The Colts hope he resolves their own long-running quarterback struggles. The acquisition of Carson Wentz in 2021 was intended to stop the recent revolving door of QBs for the franchise. Instead, they found themselves back in the quarterback market one year later.
The Colts traded Wentz to the Commanders before agreeing a couple of weeks later to the Ryan deal. Ryan will become the fifth different quarterback to start the season for the Colts in the past five seasons. Meanwhile, Wentz’s career has reached a crossroads. Can he resurrect it in Washington?
Mayfield’s Cleveland run ends
The domino effect continued this month with the conclusion of the Baker Mayfield era in Cleveland. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft was traded from the Browns to the Carolina Panthers after four seasons. The conditional-pick agreement could push the compensation to as high as a fourth-round choice.
Interestingly, the deal has set up a unique situation in Carolina: The Panthers now have the first and third selections of the 2018 draft in Mayfield and Sam Darnold. The two prospects both flamed out with their first teams and are attempting to reestablish themselves. Could there be a better example of the all-or-nothing nature of drafting QBs in today’s NFL?
Jackson’s contract situation
Meanwhile, the 32nd pick of that 2018 draft is navigating one of the more interesting contract situations in the NFL. How you view the contract status of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson likely depends on whether you embrace the team’s version of the story. The Ravens say they are ready and willing to negotiate a deal with Jackson, who is entering the final season of his rookie contract.
Yet Jackson, who does not employ an agent, is still on his original contract, and market-shifting deals have made signing Jackson a particularly pricey proposition. If the sides don’t reach a deal before the season, this threatens to become a season-long distraction.
In other big contract extension news, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ended speculation — his agent released an unambiguous statement saying, among other things, “actions speak louder than words in this volatile business” in February — by agreeing to a five-year, $230.5 million extension this month. And the Rams made defensive tackle Aaron Donald the highest-paid non-quarterback in league history with a contract that averages $31.6 million annually and puts to rest questions about Donald’s possible retirement.
Big money in free agency
Remember the muted 2021 free agency period that followed a pandemic-related decline in the league’s salary cap? Neither do we. NFL players enjoyed a free agency bonanza in 2022, with teams showing a willingness to dole out massive contracts during 2022 free agency.
Edge rusher Von Miller signed a $120 million contract with the Bills. Offensive tackle Terron Armstead got $75 million from the Dolphins. Cornerback J.C. Jackson (Chargers), receiver Christian Kirk (Jaguars), edge rusher Randy Gregory (Broncos) and safety Marcus Williams (Baltimore avens) each signed contracts worth at least $70 million.
The results were mixed for the eight players who were franchised. The Chiefs’ Orlando Brown Jr. and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Jessie Bates III have neither signed their tenders nor received contract extensions. Tight ends Mike Gesicki (Dolphins) and Dalton Schultz (Dallas Cowboys) signed their tenders, and the remaining four franchised players signed new contracts.
Players flexed their power
NFL players have historically wielded less clout than NBA and Major League Baseball players. But there were notable examples this offseason of NFL players leveraging their power to achieve their desired results.
Watson and Wilson used their no-trade clauses to essentially pick their respective trade destinations. Hill independently negotiated with the Jets and Dolphins before agreeing to terms with Miami. Adams’ situation played out similarly. Not every NFL player has the kind of juice these star players possess. But those who do showed they are not shy about using it.
Washington’s scandal deepens
The fallout from the Commanders’ workplace misconduct investigation continued with the involvement of a Congressional committee. In October, Congress started investigating the team’s workplace culture under Daniel Snyder’s ownership, including claims of sexual misconduct.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform determined that Snyder conducted a “shadow investigation” while the NFL carried out its own internal investigation, according to a 29-page committee report. Even commissioner Roger Goodell became embroiled in the matter, compelled to testify before the committee last month. Snyder is scheduled to give his much-anticipated testimony on July 28.
Playoff OT format changed
The controversy arising from January’s divisional game between the Chiefs and Bills led to the passage of a rule that will ensure at least one possession for both teams in postseason overtime games.
The Chiefs defeated the Bills in one of the sport’s most exciting playoff games after winning the overtime coin toss and scoring on the first possession. The result prompted vociferous debate around the league. The new rule will apply only to playoff games.
Niners’ unresolved issues
Conversation around the San Francisco 49ers has been dominated all offseason by two topics: a potential trade of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the contract dispute with receiver Deebo Samuel. As of now, neither has been resolved.
The 49ers were expected to trade Garoppolo months ago, but his shoulder surgery and the significant QB movement elsewhere in the league have negatively impacted his market. San Francisco is expected to start 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance under center this season. Meanwhile, Samuel has been seeking a new contract and skipped voluntary workouts in May and June before attending the team’s mandatory minicamp last month.
Notable suspensions heading into 2022 include Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who will miss the first six games of the regular season after violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley will miss at least the entire 2022 season after he was suspended for gambling on NFL games.
Saints running back Alvin Kamara was arrested in February on felony battery charges surrounding an incident in a Las Vegas casino. The arrest remains under league review, and a court hearing is set for Aug. 1.
Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field was renamed Acrisure Stadium after the company purchased naming rights, ending a 20-year run of the venue being named for a Pittsburgh institution.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined the Broncos’ ownership group by purchasing an undisclosed percentage of the franchise.
Longtime NFL league office executive David Highhill moved to a new role: vice president, general manager of sports betting. It’s the first league position solely dedicated to overseeing the NFL’s business in the sports-betting space.
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